Outback Metropolis

This is an article from the Architecture Australia archives and may use outdated formatting


Australia’s largest polis is not Sydney but a geographical network of settlements scattered across the central continent – connected not by shared streets but the aircraft and telecommunications system of the Royal Flying Doctors Service.

Architects Penelope Dean (Australia) and Peter Trummer (Austria) investigate antipodean links between the ‘space of places’ and the ‘space of flows’.


Inside Australia we have long recognised that the flying doctor represents perhaps the single greatest contribution to the effective settlement of the far distant country that we have witnessed in our time. 1
The Royal Flying Doctors Service (RFDS) provides aero-medical emergency and basic health programmes along with communication and education facilities to residents, travellers and workers of Australia’s remote ‘outback’. 2

The service, executed by radio and aeroplanes, sustains what might be considered the ultimate urban vacuum – 7.15 million square kilometres, an area as large as western Europe, a declared desert of the most arid extreme, a population of 143,000 and a density of 0.02 people per square kilometre. How could this ever be considered akin to a metropolis and what might it look like?

Living Beyond Immediate Distance
To think about urbanism today, one is confronted with the fact that the historical spatial logic of urbanism has lost its significance. Spatial logic here refers to the process through which the experience of the ‘space of places’ has become more and more affected by an experience of space that is not perceived through a fixed location but is felt through a realm that Manuel Castells has termed “the space of flows.” 3

One aspect of this new spatial logic is governed by the effects of telecommunication systems, where social activities no longer rely on physical contiguity but occur as relations between far-distanced people and institutions. Social interactions are very often fostered between others who are both ‘absent’ 4 and distant in time and in space – people who we do not know and have never met; people we know but have never met; people we think we know, but do not; and people we do not know but who somehow have influence. Our act of living now transgresses immediate distance.

The effect of all this leads to a new notion of space. A space whose form could well be the ‘city’, as in the organisation of the merchant society, or the ‘region’, as in the organisation of the industrial society. 5

If living beyond immediate distance refers to the organisation of a ‘network society,’ 6 then what is its spatial form and what lifestyle does it afford?


The territory covered by the RFDS is not a city. It is also not a region. To many it remains a wilderness, an untouched landscape – Nature par excellence. Yet the outback has another reality. It is an urban field. It is a constellation of inhabitants that includes people of long residence (pastoral workers, miners and Aboriginal communities who live in small and dispersed settlements); people engaged in mobile living (sheep farmers, truckers and seasonal workers); and people of temporary residence (tourists, archaeologists and adventurers who are bound to a site for only a short period of time). The outback, part of the country’s economic hinterland for raw exports – wool, minerals and crops – once sustained the coastal cities where 70 percent of Australia’s 18 million people now live.

The RFDS affords a free service to the outback population. It is financed by federal and state governments along with donations from corporations and the public. However, its existence, coupled with its territory, creates an urban paradox: the socio-medical services usually equated with urban life are brought to a territory that does not have an identifiable urban form in terms of built fabric and population density. The configuration eludes definition in conventional terms. Question: how might it be defined?

Given the new spatial conditions postulated earlier in this article, it seems necessary to rethink what urbanism is and how to practise it. The RFDS is an interesting example. Whilst it bears no historical reference to the evolution of the ‘city’ as we know it, it is an extreme example where minimum density is coupled with maximum social cohesion. The service does not occur as the ‘fallout’ of an unforecasted network society. It is a network society.

How to research, or what to look for, or what to look at in the case study of the flying doctors? If the relation between two locations (or nodes) can be considered more important than the location itself, it would then be possible to visualise the relations as being ‘concrete’, in the same way that we have conventionally understood the ‘concrete’ to be the location. It is the intention of our research to formulate or construct a way of ‘thinking’ urbanism based on the operational mode of relations within a network. It will be concluded that its operational mode is time-sharing 7 rather than place sharing; referring to non localised and localised events which occur in time and have the characteristic of being shared through a network.




The Consummated Vision
The RFDS was the result of a philanthropic vision: to bring the same municipal services to a dispersed outback population as the Australian coastal cities provided to a concentrated population – that is, medical facilities, comprehensive health care and ‘community’ assistance. The ambition was to combine rural life with urban conveniences. It was to make outback conditions more ‘liveable’ by combating the isolation and oppression that resulted from vast distance and poor communication. From its very inception, the RFDS was a tactical response to what was then identified as a socio-urban problem.

For the vision to be realised as a service, its internal organisation and its distribution had to be invented.

The transformation from invention into established practice paralleled and capitalised on developments in transport and communication technologies. At the turn of this century, the existing small pockets of settlement were either urban parasites linked to mineral deposits and pastoral properties or remote Aboriginal communities. The settled areas constituted points that were spaced far apart and were indirectly connected. The founder and visionary of the RFDS was Reverend John Flynn, who established in 1912 the Australian Inland Mission (AIM); a body which effectively institutionalised the medical and social programme. Without a grid of streets or public square, the AIM sought to inject the settled points with hospitals and nursing homes. These were attached to existing concentrations and subsequently became attractors. To create order, the points had to be connected together. Initially populations and medical services were connected by overland transportation – railways and camels. However, the area was thin on infrastructure and most of it was centrifugal – roads and railway lines linked mineral deposits directly to coastal ports. Of course, it was a futile endeavour to construct more refined infrastructure overland due to the vast distances and horrendous construction costs.

After World War I, Flynn seized the potential to draw together experimental technologies in wireless and aviation to make direct connections. An aeroplane, with enough space for a stretcher, was used to transport patients and medical services. A two-way radio system was installed to enable communication between hospitals or ‘bases’ and pockets of settlement or ‘outstations’ to announce the need for physical transportation. The two systems were dependent on one compatibility


factor – that the distance of voice transmission equalled that of flight distance. Using the new pedal radio invented by Alfred Traeger and aviation strategies suggested by Lt. Clifford Peel, Flynn launched the first Aerial Medical Service in 1928 at Cloncurry (Queensland) with a de Havilland DH-50 leased from the Aerial Service that later was to become the national airline, Qantas. The traditional ambulance programme (offered by the city) was in this case re-regulated to incorporate exacerbated movement and distance. At this point, the aeroplane became an extension of the hospital towards the outstation and the two-way radio an extension of the outstation towards the hospital. The effect was that of privatisation and scale: the surgical waiting room now included a place of residence and at the same time was of unprecedented enormity – it covered the outback. In 1934, after the success of the Cloncurry test run, the AIM handed over to the Australian Aerial Medical Service. Within eight years, the service had been cloned: aeroplanes, two-way radios, voice transmissions, air and radio bases, doctors and hospitals multiplied 17-fold across the entire Australian interior, tapping into existing settled areas. For the first time the outback could be identified as one connected urban entity that was locally disconnected: a metropolis was constructed out of air. A federal council was formed to co-ordinate and administer the organisation. The bases were distributed into 5 administrative sections. In 1942 the service became known as the Flying Doctor Service. 8 Today, instead of radio, the outback is covered with a telecommunications system that is supported through an optical fibre link encircling the continent. The RFDS is no longer an exclusive system existing out of indiosynchratic parts, but is now incorporated into an extensive global telecommunications system. Whilst the ingredients on which the system is built up may have altered, the relations between the parts have become stronger and more dependent.

More Lines Than Points
The RFDS is a network model. A network is a system of interconnections between two points, nodes or social positions. 9 These points or social positions can be read as autonomous elements that are connected to one another to form a centre-less network of relations. Whilst every element might be autonomous, they are at the same time, interdependent.


When the relations of the RFDS network – transportation and communication - are seen as interdependent movements between physically separated locations, each location within the network depends on the other. Within the RFDS autonomous elements include outstations and bases. Relations within the RFDS constitute communication transmissions, aeroplane movements and people movements connecting two autonomous elements. The network has a set physical boundary of in which the elements are situated. What is determined is the boundary for expansion but not the internal routings. The network model of the RFDS topologically organises the outback. The field is covered with access circles of average 500km radius. This radius is derived from an aeroplane flight time of 90 minutes and the transmission field of radio waves. Each radial zone (the illustrated example is Cloncurry) contains the service – an air base, a radio station and medical facilities; and its clients – the dispersed population. Every point within that access circle must allow an aeroplane to land, and receive and send by radio. Each base and private property therefore by necessity, has a landing strip for the plane. The zone functions as the ultimate decentralised and atomised airport whose arrival and departure lounges have been territorially exploded across the country’s interior.

The radio is also essential. It connecting patients with the medical practitioners. Each requires by necessity, a high frequency two-way radio. Each air base has a radio station. The radio connects the dispersed population through one radio channel.

The network of the RFDS is a non-linear organisation whereby not locale A affects locale B or locale B affects locale A, but where A affects indirectly everything and everything indirectly A. 10 Each point within the network has the same potential as all the other points. Each point within that zone can, at any moment, be centre or periphery. Every point has the same facilities of infrastructure meaning that anyone can send and receive, land and take off. The ways in which the points are connected determine the RFDS programmes, since the programmes are defined by entries and exits 11 into the points within the network. A frequency of exchange occurs along lines between points. There are always more lines than points.

Geometry of Service
The RFDS network proved to be charged with hidden potential. What first began as a medical programme serving a dispersed population was later able to accommodate additional social programmes. These programmes were always virtually there but not immediately actualised. In the course of its evolution, the RFDS has incorporated a


School of the Air, a gossip radio channel for the outback housewife and a 24-hr business service. 12

The service has been broad enough to accommodate developments and directions not originally envisaged because it was charged with inefficiencies that allowed it to continually transform. The network system was able to increase and change because some parts could fall out and new parts could join – it was adaptable. The history of the flying doctors is, as most histories of technological innovation, a non-linear history. 13

The service now provides the following programmes:

1. Field clinics: a temporal clinic operating several times a week in shifting locations. The site of the clinic can be a property, a mine settlement, an oil field or a tourist resort. Doctors and nurses arrive by aeroplane to the site whilst patients arrive by private transport. The clinics are strategically located near concentrations of population.

2. Radio clinic: medical consultations by doctors and nurses through radio or telephone. The service is available to anyone with a radio that is able to both send and receive.

3. Bush pharmacy: The geographic spread of 3500 RFDS medical chests containing an extensive range of number coded drugs and medical supplies that are distributed to the dispersed population.

4. School of the Air: a corresponding school held via radio between a child’s residence and a remote classroom/radio studio where a teacher transmits lessons.

5. 24-hrs emergency service: Special flights for victims who require urgent medical attention. A flying doctor or nurse arrive by aeroplane to either treat the patient on site or to transport them to the nearest hospital.

6. Galah session: a moment when the radio network is publicly opened to allow a collective ‘chat’ amongst ‘neighbours’ who could be 100 kilometres or more away from each other.

These programmes can be called geometries of service’. 14 Geometries comprise different lines of different directions, making spatial arrangements’. In general we might distinguish two kind of spatial dispositions, meaning the way we move or relate to one another, the effective and affective. In the first, one tries to insert movements, figures, stories, activities into some larger organisation that predates and survives them; the second, by contrast, seeks to release figures or movements from any such organisation, allowing them to go off on unexpected paths or relate to one another in undetermined ways.’ 15 The RFDS is the second of such spatial dispositions.


Polygamy 16
Many studies on the effect of transportation and tele-communication networks on settlement have positioned the network node or point in the foreground of discussion. 17 In the urban discourse this node or point is traditionally attributed to the city centre. This is probably due to the evolutionary historiography of the city where the city is considered a concentric entity. If however, the relations between nodes are more often than not the scene for influential activity, as is the case in the RFDS, can the relations in total then be considered as the figure of interest?

Concluding from the RFDS case study, its figure of relations can be defined as Polygamy. Polygamy is a territory of relations between two or more locales that are mutually dependent whilst being physically disconnected. It is a spatial form, a space not in the 3-D homogeneous sense, but a space which incorporates notions of expansion (the physical boundaries of the network), extension (stretched programmes) and frequency (the number of lines between points). These characteristics further define Polygamy as a technical object where, in the words of Sanford Kwinter, “every single object is surrounded by a complex of habits, methods, gestures and practices, which are not attributes of the object itself, but still characterise its existence.” 18

Brought to an urban principle, polygamy is irrespective of size, irrespective of centre and irrespective of territory. It is indifferent to contextual properties such as population counts and ‘outback’ desert.

Bubble 19
The RFDS does facilitate a particular kind of lifestyle for outback inhabitants. It allows an individual to live in physical isolation with, at the same time, a great deal of day-to-day security. This security has two dimensions. On one hand, it occurs as vested trust in a service which operates like a guardian angel – assistance is only a telephone call away and will come directly to you. On the other hand, it is able, through its network makeup, to give rise to a social collective (in itself a security) that transgresses any notion of physical distance. The idea of collective within the RFDS is actually ‘community’ – not in the most traditional sense of the word where it would be confined to an immediate context and rely on face-to-face social interactions, but a community that is time-bound, in parallel with a programme of the service and existing irrespective of whether individuals are absent or present in time and in space.

Whilst there are many abstract dimensions at work here, the RFDS network is socially practised when there is: an interaction between the service and the individual; an exercised programme (field clinic, emergency service, school of the air, bush pharmacy or galah session); spatial co-presencing (when doctor and patient interact in space – for example the field clinic); time synchronisation (when doctor and patient interact in time – for example the bush pharmacy), and compliance with rules where both parties act out the procedures dictated by the programme. A synthesis of all these elements distinguishes a particular kind of transitory context. This context has been coined Bubble. At its most elemental, a Bubble constitutes people and objects, it involves interactions between them, it is situated in a physical space and it lasts for a specific period of time.

Time-Sharing Urbanism
This research is an investigation into the architectural terrain of the space of flows. The terrain has been defined as Polygamy – a territory of dispersed elements with more connections, many layers and also a form. The lifestyle afforded by the network has been defined as Bubble. It can be concluded that the operational mode of it all is Time-Sharing. The term ‘time-sharing’ used here, does not refer to the definition in the tourist industry where a specific place is owned in time through different persons. Time-sharing refers in a broader definition to non localised and localised events that occur in time and have the characteristic of being shared through a network.


In the case of the RFDS there are three different operations of time-sharing:

1. Simultaneous time-sharing occurs when a single programme is accessed by many parties at the same time, the School of the Air and Bush pharmacy for example. Here the programme occurs as a space in time that is both collectively and simultaneously shared via the network.

2. Sequential time-sharing occurs when a programme necessitates a hierarchy of actions in order to fulfil it. The Emergency Service of the RFDS operates in this way: a patient calls the base that calls the doctor who informs the pilot who flies the aeroplane etc. Each of these actions require separate actors who know in advance the rules and the order of operation. The actors share, independently and in fixed order, a time span of the total programmatic duration.

3. Synchronised time-sharing is the temporary overlap of two infrastructural expansions that operate at the same rate and at the same location. The field clinic, with its weekly timetable, shifting location and overlap between doctor and patient is an example of synchronised time-sharing.

The operations of time-sharing are only afforded via the relations of the network. Reciprocal relations between smaller and larger units, each based on performing tasks for which they are uniquely fitted give rise to a new urban territory: one that offers the same services offered to an accumulated population yet it looks unlike any urban constellation that we know. The time-sharing footprint cannot be classified as city or region, periphery or centre. It is a new urban form made possible through infrastructure.

Its organisation can in a sense be described as non-territorial. However, because it is charged with potentials, is subject to change without due notice and has expansionist tendencies, it is inclined, almost by default, to generate a site specificity.

Penelope Dean is a UTS architecture graduate who now works with MURDV in Rotterdam. Peter Trummer is an Austrian architect working for UN-Studio-van Berkel & Bos in Amsterdam. This article is derived from Dean’s ‘Bubble: At Home in Modernity Two’ (1997) and Trummer’s ‘Polygamy: Time-Sharing Urbanism’ (1998); thesis works undertaken at the Post-Graduate Laboratory for Architecture, Berlage Institute, Amsterdam. This essay first appeared in Daidalos 69/70, pp.92-99.

1. A former Prime Minister of Australia, Sir Robert Menzies, describing the RFDS. Quoted in The Flying Doctor Story, George Wilson, Cyan Press. 1993, p.150.
2. The term ‘outback’ refers to those regions in Australia that are remote from the settled districts.
3. Castells, M., 1996. The Rise of the Network Society, Blackwell, pp.376-428.
4. Giddens, A., 1996. The Consequences of Modernity, Polity Press, p.18.
5. op cit. Castells. p.412.
6. ibid.
7. op cit. Castells, p.411. Castells defines space as the material support of time-sharing social practices. He writes that “space brings together those practices that are simultaneous in time.”
8. The prefix ‘Royal’ was granted to the flying doctors’ title after Queen Elizabeth visited the service in 1954.
9. op cit. Castells, p.470.
10. Kelly, K., 1997. Das Ende der Kontrolle, Die biologische Wende in Wirtschaft, Technik und Gesellschaft, Bollman Verlag GmbH, p.41.
11. Deleuze, X., and X. Guattari, ‘City/State’, trans. B. Massumi, (Zone 1/2), pp.195-199.
12. Statistics given in the Australian Council of the Royal Flying Doctors Service of Australia 1997 Annual Report suggest that the network has lately responded to demographic dynamics. Bases have appeared, disappeared and been replaced. Administrative sections have combined. The tourist coast of Queensland now taps into the network.
13. This is the thesis advanced by Manuel De Landa in A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History (Zone Books, 1997). The influence of technology is elaborated especially in War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (Zone, 1991).
14. Rachman, J., 1998. Constructions, MIT Press, p.92. Raichman defines “geometries of living” here.
15. ibid.
16. The first time we were confronted with the concept of ‘polygamy’ was in Ulrich Beck’s ‘was ist globalisierung?’ (Suhrkamp, 1997), where he described the lifestyle of a woman who lived in Africa and in Tutzing as ‘ortspolygam’. He was indicating that globalisation is not an abstract economic effect but occurs as a ‘glocal’ or, as he later defined it in the book, ‘translocal’ lifestyle.
17. As an example see A. Z. Polo., 1994, ‘Order out of Chaos: The Material Organisation of Advanced Capitalism’, in Architectural Design Profile No. 108, The Periphery, London.
18 Kwinter, S., 1993. ‘The Complex and the Singularity’, arch+ 119,120.
19. In ‘The Tourist Gaze’ (Sage, 1996, p.7), John Urry introduces the term “environmental bubble” when he quotes Boorstin’s description of tourist groups residing in American-style hotels which insulate the tourist from the strangeness of a host environment (quoted from D. Boorstin, 1964, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Harper).



Published online: 1 Jan 2000


Architecture Australia, January 2000

More archive

See all
The November 2019 issue of Landscape Architecture Australia. November issue of LAA out now

A preview of the November 2019 issue of Landscape Architecture Australia

The February 2020 issue of Landscape Architecture Australia. February issue of LAA out now

A preview of the February 2020 issue of Landscape Architecture Australia.

The May 2020 issue of Landscape Architecture Australia May issue of LAA out now

A preview of the May 2020 issue of Landscape Architecture Australia.

August issue of LAA out now August issue of LAA out now

A preview of the August 2019 issue of Landscape Architecture Australia.

Most read

Latest on site